Wendy Meadows Cozy Mystery Bake It to the Limit (EBOOK)
Twin Berry Bakery Book 1
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They thought they could leave their past behind. But murder doesn’t retire.

Can Rita and Rhonda unmask the killer of Clovedale Falls? Or are their dreams of a quiet life doomed to fail?

Retired cops Rita and Rhonda Knight are eager to leave their crime-fighting past behind them and retire to the sleepy little town of Clovedale Falls. With the annual Pumpkin Festival right around the corner, the pair work day and night to get their bakery ready so they can finally say goodbye to solving crime.

But their dreams of a quiet new life are shattered when a strangely familiar man is found dead next door – and the twin sisters are quickly plunged into a murder investigation that will push them to their limits. As the newest arrivals in the town, all eyes are on them… and they have no idea who they can trust.

Racing against time before the killer can claim any more victims, Rita and Rhonda fight to unravel a sinister case – one that only turns darker the deeper they dig. And after they hatch a daring plan to bring the killer to light, they realize that their new life might be over before it can even begin…

Can Rita and Rhonda unmask the killer of Clovedale Falls? Or are their dreams of a quiet life doomed to fail?

Chapter One

Rita parked the SUV under a tall maple tree resplendent with red, yellow, and orange leaves at the far end of a wide open field lined with rows and rows of parked vehicles leading to the colorful tents and the fairway of the Pumpkin Festival. “My goodness, the festival is packed,” she said in amazement, and quickly checked her makeup and hair in the rearview mirror. 

“You look fine, stop fussing,” said her twin sister Rhonda with a gentle roll of her eyes.

“I rarely wear makeup, but I thought a dash of blush and some light lipstick would look nice with my new dress.”

Rhonda looked at her twin sister and grinned. She couldn’t resist teasing her usually staid sister. “Well, that dress you're wearing would look nicer if it wasn't so...loud.”

Rita gasped. “My dress? What's wrong with my dress?” she asked in a worried voice, smoothing down the understated damask dress with velvet ribbon trim patterned in autumn colors and motifs. “I thought a nice dress with leaves and pumpkins would look nice.” 

Rhonda suppressed a giggle. She loved teasing her sister. “Oh, I suppose it's nice,” she said, and checked her own hair. Excited to get to the fair that day, Rhonda had tied her hair into a sensible ponytail while Rita had spent a painstaking hour in front of the mirror, opting for loose waves framing her face in a relaxed tumble.

“And I suppose you think that...that monstrosity you're wearing is nice?” Rita asked, feeling her cheeks flush red. “You look like a...a...”

“Khaki pumpkin?” Rhonda laughed. She buttoned up her soft orange cardigan over her comfortable tan knit dress that swirled below her knees, checking the wind that rustled the leaves outside. “Go ahead, you were saying?” 

“Oh,” Rita fussed, “nothing bothers you.” 

Rhonda patted Rita's hand. “Your dress is lovely,” she promised, and tipped a sweet wink. “You know I'm only teasing you.”

Rita sighed. “I should have known, but with you, it's difficult to tell,” she said and nudged Rhonda gently with her elbow. “My dress is nice?” She looked down again at the swirling colors, as excited as a young girl.

“Really nice,” Rhonda confirmed. She shouldered her white purse and they climbed out of the vehicle and looked around. “I can’t believe we're in the middle of the Pumpkin Festival already,” she said. “I thought we’d make it over here during the first week, but no. Luckily, Erma was able to mind the bakery for us.”

“Our bakery, which is a smashing success,” Rita supplied with a proud nod of her head. 

“We have the entire day to ourselves. A day to stroll around the fairgrounds, sip apple cider, buy pumpkins, enjoy all the arts and crafts, eat pumpkin pie, smell the fresh autumn air, watch the leaves fall, get lost in the corn maze, and have a blast.” 

Rhonda was halfway to the entrance gate before she realized her sister was lagging behind. Rita was looking inside her light green purse with a slightly guilty look. “I brought three hundred dollars,” she confessed. “I know we're supposed to be watching our pennies, but our bakery is bringing in such a surprising profit, I wanted to spoil myself.”

“This coming from Ms. Rationality,” Rhonda pointed out, giving Rita another wink.

“I know, I know,” Rita sighed. “I've been watching every penny we've been spending like a hawk. And now look at me. I'm throwing this much money into the wind?” She zipped her purse carefully and double-checked it before she hurried forward to walk next to her sister. “Our bakery’s success has been such a Godsend…it’s all the recipes Erma gave us! Every one of them has turned out amazing. I guess we were right after all to stick with the vintage 1930s look. Everyone in town says it feels just like it used to back when Erma’s family ran the bakery, and they love that our baked goods taste like what she used to bake, too!

“That woman has the touch,” Rhonda said happily.

“She has turned our bakery into something very special,” Rita agreed as leaves danced in a crisp morning wind. Across the field, she could smell apple cider, fresh hay bales, and pumpkin pie mixed with hot funnel cakes, boiled peanuts, and corn on the cob. She could see rows and rows of arts and crafts booths and hear the murmurs of the happy crowds wandering from place to place. A tractor rumbled along, pulling a hayride along the far edge of the field where the corn maze was situated. Everything simply sang of fall and fun. A huge smile spread across Rita’s face as her steps quickened toward the entrance gate of the festival.

“Boy, what’s gotten into you?” Rhonda asked, amused.

“I promised myself I would stop penny-pinching when the right time came,” Rita explained, “and that time is now! I've been so uptight over our finances, what with moving here to a new town and starting a new business, to where I dreaded our new life instead of embracing it alongside you.”

“I know,” Rhonda replied, and let out a heavy breath. “I watch you do the books.”

Rita winced a little. “I've been pretty tense.”

“Just a tad,” Rhonda agreed, and then let a warm smile slip back across her face. “Rita, you saw our first bank deposit. We're fine. As a matter of fact, we're more than fine.” She patted her own wallet in her purse. “Why shouldn’t we get to spend a couple hundred at the fair?” she asked. “As much as your rational tendencies annoy me, I do respect them. I respect that you're very cautious over our business spending and that you want to keep us in the green.”

“You mean in the black?” Rita said, puzzled. “In accounting, you want to be in the black.” 

Her sister laughed and rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Whatever. This is exactly why I feel comfortable spending money today because I know we're fine and will continue being fine. Even when you stop penny-pinching, your eyes will still be on the bottom line. And we're both very smart gals who understand when it's okay to spend and when it's time to be careful.”

Rita looked at her sister and felt a grateful love swell in her heart. Sure, Rhonda could be a clown and loved to make jokes, but she was also a woman who knew how to use her brain and be smart. If she was willing to trust Rita, that meant the sisters truly had no worries about money. “Let's go have a wonderful day.”

“You bet,” Rhonda giggled, and hurried along the grass in the morning air. “Beat you to the gate!” The two sisters laughed as they hurried along.

Oh, will you smell that!” Rhonda exclaimed when they entered the fairgrounds. “Crisp air...pumpkins...fresh burning wood...” She swung her gaze around in every direction and absorbed the soft beauty of the morning. “Oh, I could just melt.”

“I know,” Rita smiled as the winds played in her strawberry-blond hair. She tried to forget her nervousness about her dress and the makeup she was unaccustomed to wearing—although many people who saw them thought the twin sisters were beautiful. “Fresh chimney smoke from nearby homes...oh, this is so wonderful.” 

Rhonda grabbed Rita's hand. “Let's hurry before all the good stuff is taken,” she begged, pointing down at her feet. “I wore my running shoes because I plan to do a whole lot of walking.”

“I wore my running shoes, too,” Rita giggled and checked her watch. “Okay, it's almost ten. The festival has been running since nine and doesn't close until nine tonight. That leaves us eleven hours. I think that's enough time to walk our legs off.”

“Then what are we waiting for!” Rhonda exclaimed, and dragged Rita down a long row of booths. “Oh, that food smells so good.”

“I'll buy you a hot apple cider,” Rita promised. 

“And a funnel cake?” Rhonda laughed. “Today, I'm kicking my healthy diet to the wind.” She dragged Rita past a massive wooden pumpkin painted with the festival sign near the ticket booth. 

Two older women manned a table by the entrance booth. Rhonda read out loud the sign attached to the table: “Pumpkin Raffle…one dollar a ticket...the grand prize is the Blue Ribbon Pumpkin.”

“Oh, we have to enter,” Rita pleaded with Rhonda. 

“You bet your hot funnel cake we have to enter,” Rhonda agreed, and quickly yanked two singles from her purse. “Two raffle tickets, please.” 

Bertha Mills smiled, took Rhonda's money, placed it in an old-fashioned cash register, and said, “Two tickets it is.”

Allison Light, a sweet, elderly black woman, smiled at Bertha, peeled two orange tickets off a thick roll, and handed them to Rita. “Here you go, dears. Good luck.” 

Rita quickly handed Rhonda a ticket and beamed at Bertha and Allison. It was clear the two old women were lifelong friends who had been through thick and thin together. “Thank you so much,” she said.

Allison smiled. “You two girls own Erma's bakery now, right?”

“Yes, ma’am, we sure do,” Rhonda replied exuberantly. “Twin Berry Bakery is up and running.”

“Erma is watching the bakery for us today,” Rita explained as a line of people began forming behind them. “We needed a day off to enjoy the festival. Anyway, thank you again. We'll be going now. Bye.”

“Bye, dear,” Allison smiled and waved at Rita and Rhonda as they walked under the large wooden pumpkin and entered the fairgrounds. 

“My, so many people and it's not even lunch,” Rhonda gasped as her eyes soaked in rows and rows of arts and crafts tables, food stands, game booths, and even a few rides set up for children to enjoy. A pony walked in a hay-strewn paddock for children to ride, along with a camel for the more adventurous, and a small petting zoo with goats and sheep had been set up to one side. “The festival sure is in full swing.”

Rita locked her eyes on a game booth. The booth held four large pumpkins with tall stems. Small children were trying to toss orange, red, and brown plastic rings around the stems. An old man who appeared to be in his late seventies sat inside the booth, smiling at the children, smoking a worn cherrywood pipe and watching them play; no cheap carnival gags and tricks here, just simple, innocent, free games where the winner could win a ticket for a cup of apple cider, a funnel cake, a hayride, or other sweet gifts that touched the heart. “I love Clovedale Falls,” she told Rhonda in a dear voice. “I'm falling in love with this town more and more each day.”

“I know what you mean,” Rhonda agreed, and pointed to a promising stand. An older woman was holding out a thick paper plate with hot funnel cake dipped in peppermint sprinkles to a young girl. The young girl looked up at her mom and dad. The dad smiled and nodded his head. The girl happily took hold of it, thanked the old woman, and took a bite. Her face lit up with joy. 

“No video games, no technology, no politics, just people enjoying community fun and nature. The true gifts that the good Lord offers us...if we're willing to accept them, that is.”

Rita hooked her arm through Rhonda's and pointed to a hot apple cider stand. “Let's go get us some, and then visit each and every arts and crafts booth.” 

“I'm with you.”

Rita walked Rhonda up to the drink stand that had a front counter framed in wood carved and painted in the shape of large apple. They smiled at a short chubby woman dressed in a red apple costume, with an apple-blossom patterned apron. The woman hurried over to Rita and Rhonda. “Lucy, you look terrific,” Rita laughed. 

Lucy Whitson gave a polite curtsy. “In the offseason, I'm Lucy Whitson, cashier,” she said in a dramatic voice. “During the Pumpkin Festival, I'm Lucy Whitson, Apple Woman Extraordinaire!”

Rhonda began clapping her hands. “Bravo,” she laughed. 

Lucy laughed too, tucking her black curls away from her eyes, and she pointed at the long wooden table behind her. “We have hot or cold apple cider, peach cider, and pear cider, along with apple and peach slushies. What will you ladies have?”

Rita and Rhonda studied the row of cups and the sign, and then focused on the two slushy machines. One was marked “Apple”, churning an icy mixture the color of apple cider, and the other was labeled “Peach”, and it was a delectable color of peachy pink. “I've never had fruit slushy before,” Rita confessed.

“Me neither,” Rhonda added. She looked at her sister. “Shall we be daring and come back for a hot apple cider later?”

Rita bit down on her lower lip, thought for a few seconds, and nodded. “Let's try something new. Two apple cider slushies, please.”

Lucy smiled. “I thought you two might be adventuresome,” she said, and hurried to dispense them, “My husband is supposed to be helping me,” she called out, picking up two tall red cups, “but he wandered off to talk to Fred Johnson again. Sometimes, being married to that man is impossible. And just try running a grocery store with him. Don't get me started.”

Rita and Rhonda grinned at each other. Not a day went by that Lucy didn't complain about her husband. Lucy and her husband were very much in love, however. “If we spot Fred, we'll send him back your way,” Rita promised. 

“Please do,” Lucy begged as she finished filling one of the red cups. 

Rita began to respond, but stopped when she saw Billy Northfield standing outside a large orange tent with his hands shoved into the pockets of his overalls, looking bored but interested at the same time. “There's Billy,” she told Rhonda, and pointed in his direction. He was talking to a man who, as far as Rita and Rhonda could tell, might have been his brother. However, Billy didn't have a brother.

Rhonda spotted Billy and smiled. There was something very special about him that she held dear in her heart. “Let's go over and say hello to him.”

“Okay,” Rita agreed. “Lucy, how much do we owe you?”

“Two dollars apiece,” Lucy said, and handed Rita and Rhonda their slushies. 

Rita quickly dug into her purse and paid Lucy. “We'll see you later, okay? Save some hot cider for us!”

“Okay,” Lucy smiled, and turned to greet the next family approaching the booth. 

The sisters walked away from the booth, paused, and looked down at their drinks. Neither had even touched their straw. “Well, we did pay for these,” Rita said.

“We sure did,” Rhonda agreed, and bit down on her lip. “Ready?” 

Rita nodded. 

“Okay. One...two...three...” Rhonda quickly took a sip of slushy, and then beamed all over. “Hey, this is delicious.”

“It sure is,” Rita agreed, and took another sip. “My goodness...delicious.”

Rhonda took a bigger sip. “That Lucy, she’s been holding out on us,” she said in a silly spy voice. “We will have to tickle her with a feather until she reveals her secrets.”

Rita laughed. “Come on, silly. Let's go say hello to Billy and—” she paused.

“What?” Rhonda asked.

“Look,” Rita whispered, and nodded her head toward the orange tent. 

Rhonda turned her eyes toward the tent. At first, Billy was the only familiar face she saw, and then Sheriff Bluestone’s face appeared. “Oh, it's Brad.”

“No way,” Rita objected. “Brad might ask us to...go direct traffic or something. Come on.” She grabbed Rhonda's hand and began pulling her away into the crowd. As she did, Brad looked up with interest at the pair. “Oh no, he's spotted us.” 

Brad threw his hand into the air to wave at the ladies and began making his way over to them. “We can't be rude, Rita,” Rhonda whispered. “Brad probably just wants to say hello.”

Rita watched Brad hurry through the crowd toward them. “Not with that expression,” she whispered back.

Rhonda locked her eyes on Brad's face. She had to admit the man was wearing a very serious expression that was out of character for such a joyous festival. “We'll just say hello,” she hesitantly said.

“I doubt it,” Rita whispered again, dreading the news Brad might bring. 

“Ladies,” Brad said, approaching both sisters, “Erma told me I would be able to find you here.”

“Enjoying a lovely morning at the festival. As civilians,” Rita quickly pointed out. 

“Yes, peaceful civilians,” Rhonda added as she read Brad's eyes. Something was wrong, and despite the sunshine in the sky, the man was about to bring in the rain. 

“Ladies,” Brad said, and eased his eyes around, “I'm going to have to cancel your morning. I need you to step into your peacekeeping roles as investigators again. There's been a...” he looked around once more and lowered his voice. “There's been a murder.”

Rita nearly dropped her slushy. Rhonda let out a deep moan. “Oh no,” they both whined at the same time and looked down at the ground. So much for a fun-filled morning—their morning suddenly felt clouded with tragedy and it was about to turn very, very strange.

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